Anyway, onwards to today's Post of Substance. Joint book review for the upcoming SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman. We are in agreement for practically everything in this book, so the format of this review will be a bit different.
We read this book as an e-ARC that we received from Netgalley, but it'll be out in less than a month (July 10th). We can't wait for you all to read it!
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Cons: Slow to start (pacing), also walks thin line of info-dumping near the beginning
Intellectual Rating: 9 out of 10
Emotional Grade: A
Book Blurb (from Goodreads): Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.
In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world. Seraphina's tortuous journey to self-acceptance is one readers will remember long after they've turned the final page.
Some of you may not realize that we’re Fantasy readers at our core. It’s a little hard to glean from the types of books Alz and I have been reading and reviewing of late. We’ve been binging on YA for a few years now, and most of what’s hot in YA recently has been paranormals and dystopians. But really, we love fantasy with all its magic and superstitions, its prophecies and quests and fearsome beasties. And the most fearsome beastie of the genre is the dragon.
So you can imagine our figurative ears perking up when we read the blurb for Seraphina. Dragons that fold into human shape? An uneasy peace? A royal murder? Oh, the potential and the intrigue! And did we mention, DRAGONS?
KRISPY: I’ll be honest though, the blurb didn’t fully hook me because Seraphina’s big secret seemed rather obvious to me even before I read the book (I won't say here for those who are especially spoiler-skittish). That second paragraph made me wary too. I’ve read enough YA books with similar sounding blurbs to know that when the heroine is partnered with some dude in the blurb, there’s probably romance on the horizon. This in itself isn’t a bad thing (I do enjoy the well-done romances), but I’ve been burned before by books that waste their potential because the plot bends over backwards to accommodate the romance, shifting the major focus to it.
About the Romance
ALZ: We've all been burned by books like that, but not with this one! There's even a love triangle of sorts, but it isn't a typical one and it's handled well.
KRISPY: I also like how atypical the tension in the love triangle is. These people are friends and allies first, so their friendships are at stake too. The focus isn't on insta-love or lust because of that foundation AND on top of that, there are politics at play as well! Oh and the love between Seraphina and her Interest is developed slowly over the course of the book.
ALZ: I liked that it was based on mutual respect and nerdiness. They both love reading and philosophy. Also, the third side of the triangle isn't vilified, though that is the expectation. In fact, many expectations are overturned in this book. I liked how not all characters were what they seemed, i.e. first impressions are not necessarily correct ones.
KRISPY: I loved that too because it was a continued theme throughout the book. The characters were constantly surprising me because they'd appear one way at first and then reveal their wonderful layers.
About the Characters
ALZ: The characters were what really made this book shine, which is unusual in that it is plot-driven as well as character-driven--and yeah, that's kind of sad to say that's unusual in YA. And what's especially unusual is that both the plot- and character-sides are good! Especially again since there are so many supporting characters, each of whom is distinct in appearance, dialogue, behavior, actions, etc. They feel like real individual people.
KRISPY: Obviously, I loved Prince Lucian Kiggs, who was clever and courageous and noble. I know the Bad Boy and/or the Rogue (aka Spicy Hot) has been popular in YA, but Prince Kiggs proves there is seriously something to be said about a gentleman (not quite the same as Tofu). And he's not perfect! He has his own prejudices, which he doesn't instantly get over (e.g. he's hurt when he finds that a trusted friend has lied to him), and a chip on his shoulder that he carries with dignity. He's totally swoon-worthy, despite not being typically YA "hot."
ALZ: Princess Glisselda was a pleasant surprise because she seems frivolous when you first meet her, but as with most of the characters in this book, there's more to her. I also liked the distinct personalities of the strange inhabitants of the Mind Garden (this will make sense when you read it).
KRISPY: And the best of all these characters is, I'm quite happy to say, SERAPHINA herself! She's an amazing, nuanced protagonist. She's even a reluctant protagonist!
ALZ: She is a bit of a special snowflake because of her musical talent, but she is also blessed with suck (TV Tropes: Blessed with Suck), so that works out. Her story is interestingly not about the obvious conflict presented by her Big Secret but more about being able to accept herself, live her life, gain the acceptance of others, and be unafraid to be who and what she is.
KRISPY: Yes! I loved her character arc SO MUCH. Here is a character who is insecure in her own skin for various reasons, but she still manages to be strong and resilient. She is grappling with her identity, but she still has a sense of self-worth, and she isn't self-pitying.
ALZ: Her personality is also described as "prickly" by other characters and this book is an excellent example of show-don't-tell--Seraphina's prickliness comes across mostly in her reactions and words to people in stressful situations, but her own thoughts/narration (since it is first-person) don't drip thorns and sarcasm. She is an excellent liar but only when her tongue is forced to it--she is not herself someone prone to lying or deliberate deceit all the time, and it doesn't seem like something she's either proud or ashamed of. It's great to see how circumstances and events force Seraphina to act in certain ways, while at the same time observing her thought processes.
KRISPY: The thing I find most refreshing about her is that she's a strong female character who kicks ass without literally kicking ass!
Seraphina is a girl who time and again saves herself without ever having to pull a punch; she saves herself and others with her wits.
She isn’t a skilled warrior (and she doesn't suddenly become one), and she doesn’t have magical powers to protect her. She’s even pretty low on the social ladder, but she’s smart and brave and loving. Despite her issues with herself and the secrets she must keep, she is loyal to the people she cares about and rises to meet every occasion, despite the danger to herself.
ALZ: And we can't forget ORMA. Krispy, I love Orma.
KRISPY: Me too! I feel about him like how I feel about Brimstone in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, except MORE because Orma is in this book more than Brimstone was in DoSaM.
ALZ: There is much to be said about Orma, Seraphina's draconic tutor, but you'll have to read the book to understand our love for him. It can't really be described.
About the Dragons
ALZ: And speaking of Orma, the dragons in this book are great--different and unique and they're written in a way where it's clear they think differently from humans. It really does feel as if they're hard-wired one way and we're hard-wired another, and so the gap of understanding between species is real and palpable. The mathematical mode of thinking and the detail given into how dragons transform into humans and what rules and laws about such transformations are brilliant!
KRISPY: Too often I feel like the "other" creatures we're presented in books are just humans with non-human traits or humans in the bodies of dragons/fairies/mermaids/etc. And that's fine if the story calls for it, but in Seraphina, the dragons are so distinct from the humans. Not only do they feel hard-wired differently as you said, but they have a whole culture and background to support it! They are technologically advanced, but they don't really get art. The closest thing they have to religion is about order and balance. It's all so well-crafted!
About the Worldbuilding
KRISPY: The world of this book is well-crafted. It is full of details. We get a richly imagined religion, developed national history and politics, holidays, etiquette, government, national mythology, cultural norms, fashion, culture, social/class/race tensions. It's glorious and amazing, and at times overwhelming, but I LOVED IT.
ALZ: I liked the Allsaints religion. I like the religion as a delicious- to use Krispy's term - "flavor particle", or maybe it's like salt, accenting and accentuating other flavors/worldbuilding.
KRISPY: I can see how it can be a little too much at first, but I think the Allsaints religion adds so much depth to the world. Here we have this very religious society, and you can see how much that religion stretches into every part of the people's lives. I feel like no world-detail in this book is placed there without it being logically threaded into the society and people's lives.
About the Writing & Plot
ALZ: Yes. It felt organic, and I like how there are certain details that essentially act as loose ends for any sequels, but these details/threads don't feel like they're shoved into the book for the sake of the sequels. When you read them, these threads feel like a natural observation or they somehow relate to a thread or plot point that IS relevant to this book. The political intrigue was actually intriguing! And the plot twist! There was a plot twist I didn't see coming even though it had setup! And it was good!
KRISPY: Take note, guys! Alz is a ridiculously perceptive reader, and more often than not, she can see a twist coming like 50-100 pages away. For the record, I agree; the plot twist was great and so well hinted at but also hidden. I love that this story was something of a murder mystery too! Rachel Hartman is an amazingly skilled writer for pulling off all the things she does here. It felt like Hartman was totally in control of her writing and her story.
ALZ: Dynamic fleshed-out distinct characters, amazing worldbuilding, and lush prose.
KRISPY: Seriously. I think my favorite part of the book is how it doesn't spell everything out. The writing is subtle, especially when it comes to emotions, which is unsurprising considering the logic-ruled dragons. The writing isn't flowery or dramatic, but it is very grippingly real. There is so much that is UNSPOKEN between characters and thematically, but you can see it and feel it. Those are my favorite kinds of scenes, where the emphasis is on the subtext.
About the Cons
The book IS slow to start. Much of the opening is set-up for the rest of the book. We hesitate to call it an info-dump because it is presented in an engaging way and it is all actually pertinent to the rest of the book, but we are given a lot of information at the start. We get a hint of the plot (e.g. the suspicious death) but then the story immediately drops us into a character-driven thread (Seraphina's background). So the pacing is a bit weird, but we were quickly enchanted by the excellently built world and the pacing rights itself as the book goes on.
Conclusion: All in all, you can tell we loved this book. The characters and story are great, and the writing is superb. I (Krispy) even had to look up a few words, and it's been a while since a book has done that to me, haha. This is also a case where we're champing at the bit for the sequel even though it doesn't end on a huge cliffhanger, although it is certainly quite open-ended and we can see what the general thrust of Book 2 will be.
If you like strong heroines whose greatest assets are probably their brains, high fantasy, elaborate worldbuilding, awww-worthy feelings, and dragons, we suggest you go out and get your hands on this book as soon as it's out!
I know I will be! It's that good!